• Alumni story
    Veronica Parker Boswel 1968 1969 Gees Bend

    Viewfinder: How did you first learn about VISTA program?

    Veronica: I heard about VISTA on TV. The first time I applied I didn't get in but I filled out the second application with the help of my father and got in.

    VF: Why did you decide to join?

    Veronica: I had lived in New York City and then my family moved to Florida. I was in my 20's living at home and I wanted to get out of the house. It sounded interesting and exciting and I just wanted to do something. I loved it.

    VF: What types of projects did you accomplish as a VISTA?

    Veronica: I was a tutor in Gees Bend, Alabama – the school was first grade through high school. The Principal's name was Booker T. Booker. The people I worked and lived with were the nicest people I've ever met.

    I started a class for kids in wheel chairs. I taught them how to write their letters. There was also a rural family that couldn't get to the school. They had three children with MS – I went to their house a couple of times a week to tutor them.

    I loved working with the handicapped – I volunteered in high school as a girl scout with a brain damaged boy and fell in love with it.

    VF: Were there other VISTAs serving with you in Gees Bend?

    Veronica: Yes. I served with four other VISTAs – there were two women and two men. I became very close to one of the other women, Mary. Mary was from the local town, Camden.

    VF: What was it like living in a small Alabama town in the late 1960's?

    Veronica: It was a very rural, black community. There was no running water – we had to carry our own water from the well. There were no telephones – we had to drive 15 minutes to Camden to use a telephone.

    But the town protected us. The community helped us. It was almost like living in a whole different culture. It made me appreciate what I had.

    VF: Tell us more about your friendship with Mary.

    Veronica: Mary was black and we had a ball together. We'd go into Selma and go to dress shops. That was one of the few places we could go into together. We would just about cause car wrecks – I had long blond hair and people would stare at us. People would ask me, "Are you with her?!" I went to all the black cafes, laundromats, waiting rooms – because my friend couldn't go any where else.

    VF: You lived in the rural South in the late 60's when racial tensions were at an all time high. What was that like?

    Veronica: I was ashamed of our race while I was there.

    One night we had all gone to bed and suddenly there was a knock at the door around 11:30pm. Mary opened the door and there were two drunk white men. Mary screamed came to my bedroom to let me know and then ran out the back door. She went and got the VISTA guys at their house and they came over to see what was going on.

    We ended up asking the men to come in, fixed a large pot of coffee, and sat down to talk. What did they want? One of the guys was a rancher that lived right outside of Selma – his worker hand was with him and they wanted to know why we were living there. Why didn't we leave? They thought we were nuts. We talked to them for an hour or more and at the end of the conversation they wanted us to come to his ranch and have a big steak dinner.

    We never went to his ranch but I'd like to think they learned something that night.

    VF: That sounds like an intense experience.

    Veronica: There are so many stories. That Christmas I wanted to surprise my parents by going home. I asked one of the teachers for a ride to the bus station. She didn't think anything of it and I got in the back seat along with two black ladies – I was the only white woman in the car. When we got to Selma, there was a cop car sitting by the side of the road. Two minutes later, sirens started, and the cop stopped her. He walked up to the car, looked straight at me and gave her a speeding ticket. She was no more speeding than there was a man on mars. She didn't pay that ticket for a long time until the sheriff showed up at her door. I apologized to her and she said, "Don't worry Ms. Ronnie. This ticket was stupid."

    Another time we went to a conference for VISTA and stayed at a Holiday Inn. Mary and I went into the restaurant to have lunch together. The hostess gave me a dirty look and asked how many. She took us to a table way in the back next to the fridge and threw the menus on the table. She took our order, put the plates on the table, then stared at us throughout the entire meal. We just went about our business and acted like nothing was happening.

    VF: What did you do after your VISTA service?

    Veronica: I went back to my parent's house in Florida and then we moved to Cincinnati. I started working for a family to help their son who was brain damaged. I volunteered at a mental institution but I only lasted a day. The kids were locked up and not dressed – they were treated horribly. I couldn't stand it. I friend of mine in Florida called to see if I wanted to be her roommate. I moved back to Florida and worked for a great hospital for the handicapped.

    I then met my husband and we eventually moved to Denver.

    VF: During our conversation, you told me about seeing the Freedom Quilting Bee in Denver. Can you tell us more about that project?

    Veronica: The Quilts of Gees Bend was a museum exhibit traveling around the country. I happened to notice that it was coming to Denver and of course I had to go.

    The Freedom Quilting Bee was a women's quilting collective in Alberta, Alabama, near to Boykin or Gee's Bend. It was founded in 1966, out of the civil rights movement. Some of the women whose quilts are represented in the Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibit once made quilts for this economic collective. Others did not. Nevertheless, it is through this earlier collective that Gee's Bend came first to be known for its quilts, for the strength of its community and the resourcefulness and artistry of its quilters.

    I noticed the photographs accompanying the quilts and found one with woman who I had lived with – she was actually at the exhibit and I got to visit with her – she recognized me right away. She told me the community of Gees Bend had changed a lot – everything had opened up.

    VF: What advice do you have for current VISTAs?

    Veronica: Work very hard – try very hard. I would encourage anybody to do VISTA – it was a fantastic experience.

  • Alumni story
    Diane Bonar 1967 1969 San Antonio

    Viewfinder: VISTA was established two years before you started serving. How did you find out about the program?

    Diane: I was a social work major in college. However, after graduation what I really wanted to do was move to San Francisco for the summer of love! But my family wasn’tkeen on that idea so when my college counselor recommended VISTA, I decided that was for me.

    VF: How did you feel about serving in San Antonio, Texas?

    Diane: I grew up in Ohio and had traveled to the East Coast and Florida, but I didn’t know anything about the Southwest. Texas was very foreign to me. It was a wonderful, eye-opening experience for me.

    VF: And what did you discover in Texas when you arrive?

    Diane: I quickly realized that we came into that part of Texas at absolutely the right time.

    It was 1967 and communities were just beginning to organize themselves. People wanted equality and fair treatment and more opportunities for their communities.

    VF: Tell us more about community organizing.

    Diane: Housing was a big issue in San Antonio. Some of our VISTAs worked for the Settlement Houses in the Hispanic neighborhoods. In some housing the only running water was outside. There was a sink in the kitchen but no indoor plumbing – they used outhouses. And this was in San Antonio – in the middle of the city!

    By living and working in the low-income neighborhoods, we grew to understand the needs of the community and connected them to social services and meeting places. People would gather and talk about what they needed.

    We would help facilitate conversations with community members and leaders and as a result, this increased awareness for better housing, indoor plumbing, health services, education, etc. This greater awareness led to an increase in voter registration, which helped vote in the first Mexican-American Mayor of the overwhelmingly Mexican-American community of Cotulla, Texas; it was a real achievement at the time.

    VF: Would you say that you witnessed real change in the community?

    Diane: Absolutely. Women were getting off food stamps and learning job skills. I remember a single mom who trained to become an auto-mechanic. She was thrilled!

    I saw a lot of change that started off with people registering to vote, then voting and resulting in policy changes that affected their lives for the better. Another woman who was a secretary at the Settlement House went on to serve on city council.

    There was real institutional change. Often the Hispanic community has described itself as a “sleeping giant,” because of low voter turn out. So when the community actually came out to vote, it made a huge difference.

    VF: What was it like being a VISTA in Texas in the late 60’s?

    Diane: VISTA was well known because of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  “Uncle Lyndon” knew how to channel resources back to his home state, but we always needed more. That’s how great the need was.

    We also had great leadership under Sargent Shriver as Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. I believe he was one of the pivotal leaders of the 20th century in this country. His staff would come from Washington, DC to check on our programs and I was always impressed with them – they were so bright and compassionate.

    VF: Tell us a little about VISTA life back then. 

    Diane: I lived in a tiny house in a woman’s backyard to live in that cost $35/month! There was a bathroom with a shower on one end, a kitchenette on the other end and a bed in middle right next to the refrigerator.

    I was close to the people I trained with (at PSO) in Oklahoma – we were known as the “Oklahoma 6.” Some of us had Thanksgiving dinner that first year in the Settlement House. 

    VF: VISTA will celebrate its 45th anniversary in 2010. What do you see as the biggest changes in the past 45 years?

    Diane: When I started in VISTA, diversity was something that was ignored, repressed, and in some cases, even illegal, but today, we can't do that. Diversity is, and always has been part of this country. Today diversity is not only a fact, but it is something we can and should celebrate.

    I’ve also really enjoyed watching a broadening of people making the world a better place. There are more people doing this work.

    VF: What advice do you have for current VISTA members?

    Diane: VISTA can lay out a path for your career if you want it to. And you will absolutely get back way more than you give. You give 110% you will get back 500%.

    And just be there – be in the moment. Know what a blessing you are to the people you are serving and how it will come back to you in your life. And if you waste this opportunity, shame on you! (laughs)

  • Alumni story
    Linda Kelly Alkana 1965 1966 Scranton

    I was driving in Los Angeles, listening to the Beatles sing a cover version of a Ray Charles song—“Tell your mama, tell your pa, I’m gonna send you back to Arkansas”—when I heard about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    I’d been a VISTA volunteer back in Arkansas three years earlier. Now, in 1968, with a Civil Rights leader murdered and many American cities in flames, my memories returned to Arkansas and to things I found as shocking as the assassination.

    I was 18 years old and had just finished my first year at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), majoring in International Relations. I joined VISTA because, as a recent immigrant from Canada, I could not join the Peace Corps. I also joined VISTA because, as corny as it sounds, I wanted to help make the world a little better.

    My family felt a mixture of pride and anxiety with me leaving college and home. They expressed more concern when they learned I was assigned to Arkansas, which at the time was infamous for its prejudices and its governor’s celebrated stand against the integration of a Little Rock high school.

    I was assigned to Paris, Ark. with Mary Ann Smerdel. We were two white 18-year-olds, she from Indiana and I from California. It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, and in Arkansas “out-of-staters” meant “agitators.”  We were two non-southerners in a world where teenage girls either lived at home or were married, and here we were, two kids representing the not-too-popular government. We were placed in this town without transportation or a job and in humidity we'd never experienced. Fortunately for us, fellow VISTA volunteer Jossie Hughes, a retired writer, was assigned to a town a few miles away and we could see her periodically.

    Paris, Ark. was like a movie set. It was a small town (population: 3,000) built around a town square. It was in that town square that I had my first exposure to the layers of prejudice in the South. Segregation was everywhere. “Whites Only” signs hung on park benches and water fountains, and the seemingly more innocuous “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” messages were posted on restaurant windows. What surprised me more, however, was seeing black people get off the sidewalk to let a white person go by. I was outraged then, and I still am, to think that these wide, wooden sidewalks that framed the town square were a means of keeping some people “in their place.”

    Another event occurred a few weeks later that was equally as shocking. Mary Ann and I attended an introductory luncheon with VISTA bigwigs and some local Arkansas officials. One member of the Arkansas contingent was African American. He did not join us for lunch, but rather ate in the kitchen. In Canada and California I had read about segregation in schools, but never imagined it extended that far. I'll never forget my shock.

    It was the memories of these events that gave me perspective during the turmoil in the days after King’s assassination. It is probably this perspective that affected my career choice. I pursued a degree in history. Taking a cue from the Civil Rights Movement, I studied social change and how people come together to fight for their rights. Even during our training, we VISTA volunteers had a sense that history was being made. Later, working on my doctorate degree, I studied those who were making it.

    While in Paris in 1965, Mary Ann and I organized a clothing drive, accompanied a welfare worker on her rounds, and finally made friends with some of the young people of the area. We had little to do in Paris, and many of its citizens were wary of us, a situation further aggravated when a black VISTA volunteer from out of state visited us. So we moved to Scranton, Ark. (population: 229) and worked as VISTA volunteers in Head Start and the grade school. We fit in better in Scranton, which was a small German Catholic community (Mary Ann and I were both Catholic).

    In Scranton, our involvement with Head Start was fun. We loved the kids. We worked with the teachers and coordinated transportation to the school. Because both the government and the town wanted to get this program implemented, all children in this small, white community were part of the program. Its immediate success allowed us to “work our way out of the job.” We then became involved with the grade school system. In Arkansas, this was an era before any special school programs. Students either sank or swam. Mary Ann and I worked with students who needed help—we tutored, we encouraged, and we made friends. We worked in concert with the Superintendent of Schools and the teachers. With Jossie’s help, we also linked teenagers with possible employers.

    The spirit behind the movements for social change that blossomed during that era’s War on Poverty was immensely important. I think we made a positive impact in Scranton because we bridged the gap between the community, which was wary of the federal government, and the federal government itself. We helped the community understand that the federal government was waging the War on Poverty on the community’s behalf.

    Before we left, the citizens of Scranton called us to the school gym for a surprise “Thank You” award ceremony. Mary Ann became such a part of the community that she stayed there and married a local boy.

    I left Arkansas with a greater belief in my abilities and a better understanding of different kinds of people. I eventually returned to UCLA, got my doctorate in history and now teach a university course on the United States in the 1960s, in which I incorporate my experiences with the War on Poverty and my memories of the Civil Rights Movement. 

    Today my students often ask me what they can do when they graduate. I tell them about AmeriCorps and encourage them to discover its possibilities.

  • Alumni story
    Leslie Tischauser 1967 1969 Fayetteville

    I was part of the Elk and Duck River Community Action Agency headquartered in Fayettevile, Tennessee. I lived in Lawrenceburg, TN, Bell Buckle, and Tracy City, Grundy County.

    We chiefly taught literacy and current events in the IIIB program for farmers.  I eventually became a Professor of History and have taught at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, IL for more than 30 years. I married a VISTA, Connie Garnett, in 1969 and we recently celebrated our 40th anniversary. 


  • Alumni story
    Richard Smith 1966 Hopkins Park

    Hopkins Park, Illinois was my assigned VISTA area after training in Chicago, Illinois at the Jane Addams Training Center in 1966. I was a twenty year old from Elma, New York, a white rural community, entering a black rural community that was 50 square miles, with one black top road, and all the others dirt. The locals generally owned their land but put up shacks for shelter, for they had no jobs or funds.

    I worked with the Community Action Program, assisting in job marketing, setting up a local day care center, from a converted local bar, developed community action programs and met with the HUD program to assist with housing programs. When I first arrived, I spent many days and hours meeting the local people - driving to their residents, meeting local small business owner's, and meeting with neighboring community representative, such as the priest at the Catholic Church in Momence and the Captain of the Salvation Army.  Experiencing a tornado was traumatic enough for me, especially living in a mobile home, but in early January or February of 1967 we had a massive snow blizzard that paralyzed the entire area. Roughly three feet of snow fell, isolating locals in the shelters without food or supplies for days. I contacted the Priest and Captain from Momence and got them, through their gracious donations to bring boxes of food and supplies to my mobile home. I then contacted a local farmer to bring his tractor and manure wagon to meet us. We loaded tons of supplies and traveled for hours in and out of 50 square miles delivering food and supplies. We even had to push a pregnant woman in a small boat to a clearing to be chopper lifted out who was in labor. The response from the surrounding area was so appreciated by all.  I had applied to enter the Missionhurst, a missionary priest congregation while I was in VISTA at Hopkins Park. I remember when the Noviciate Master came to Hopkins Park to interview me, he stated, "You are already doing our missionary work." VISTA was an immense influence on my life and I truly felt a mutual respect, love and rewards from the residents of Hopkins Park, to me and to them.  

  • Alumni story
    Beth Ruggiero 1966 Tulsa

    I joined VISTA directly after graduating from college in 1966. I flew to San Diego for training. I met my husband – also a VISTA volunteer -that very day! We have now been married for almost 44 years. We had two sons and now have 4 grandchildren. 

    After VISTA, I taught for 33 years - 3 of them in Seoul Korea. This past January I went to New Orleans with my sisters and we volunteered for the Katrina victims for a day. At the site there were several VISTA volunteers! They were surprised when I told them I was in VISTA over 40 years ago!  I have always been very proud of my time in VISTA. 

  • Alumni story
    Michael Ross 1969 1970 Crow Agency

    It was life changing. I served in ""69 and'70. I continued to live in Crow and work for the Crow Tribe and then moved to Ft. Defiance, AZ. and worked for the Navajo Tribe. I would not change it for the world. Thanks.


  • Alumni story
    Karen Paulsen 1969 1970 Gary

    I served in an elementary school tutorial program called Operation Bridge in Gary, Indiana in l969-70. I had previously graduated with a BA in Social Welfare and my VISTA experiences were life changing. 

    I met and stayed with people who lived in poverty, while they worked hard in the Steel Mills. There was pollution, stress, and hardships within families. I made home visits to help parents help their children in school, as well as worked with children in the classroom.  The VISTA program gave me valuable trainings in child development. The twenty or so volunteers learned much about politics, racism, and community organizing. I am sure that I learned more than the people I impacted. My work in VISTA enhanced my skills for my later life of service in poverty programs then in the ministry as a Pastor of United Methodist Churches in California. 

  • Alumni story
    Patricia 1965 Atlanta

    I graduated with a B.A. in Sociology/Psychology in 1965, and didn't know for sure what I wanted to do. I got a letter in the spring telling us about a new opportunity for service in America, and I signed up for a year.

    I worked in a job training program for low-income women for six months, a part of the War on Poverty program. Unfortunately, due to local management it folded. I then asked Mr. Rogers (honest, that was his name) if I could remain as a volunteer with the Salvation Army, where I had been working in the evenings as a recreation director. I then continued to work with the girls, who I loved, and with a wonderful SA Lieutenant, Evelyn Tyrell, who had a fantastic sense of humor and love and tolerance for the girls.

    I helped them put on a variety show, where they sang and dramatized songs. We taught them sewing, cooking, art and took them on trips. My mom bought winter coats for all of them that year. We got tickets for the Sound of Music, which came out that year, and they got to go see it, as a group, the first time most of them had been a movie theater!

    I loved the whole experience and so I applied to U of Illinois' Jane Addams School of Social Work in Chicago and after my VISTA term was up, I moved to Chicago to live with a college roommate, who has since become a federal appeals judge in Chicago. During the next 40 years, I worked as a social worker, in school social work, special education, developmental disabilities, brain injury, children's mental health, child protective services, and most recently served on the Board of Directors, and for a year was interim director, of Lutheran Social Services of Southern California. I continue to serve on social service related boards in my retirement.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, VISTA, for inspiring me to continue to work on behalf of those in need, for my entire life. It has been a full and wonderfully rewarding experience! 


  • Alumni story
    Martin Needelman 1969 1971 Brooklyn

    I had lived in Brooklyn, New York my whole life, but then I went to Boston University Law School in Boston, from 1966-69, including 1967, the year the Red Sox won the pennant. It was a great time and a great city and I had decided to make that my permanent home, but the Vietnam War intervened and I didn't get the public interest/legal services job I was looking for. So I decided on applying for VISTA; everybody from Boston was going to Indian reservations in Texas and Oklahoma, and I thought that would be a great and fun experience before returning to Boston.

    However, a friend of mine's brother was heading a special VISTA lawyer program at NYU Law School, where you served two years instead of one, were sponsored by the law school and got your LLM at the same time. I got accepted and after having met the VISTA lawyers in the group's 1st year's class and heard what they were doing, I decided on joining Arnie Rothbaum in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, because of his tremendously exciting work with low-income, Latino and African American parents and community activists fighting for control of their public schools.

    It was an exhilarating experience, with seven VISTA lawyers assigned to a local, church-based Southside Community Mission. I moved into and was completely accepted by the local Puerto Rican community, which I joined, not having had any contact with them previously.

    I have stayed ever since, joining the local legal services program ("Brooklyn A") in Williamsburg at the end of my VISTA service in 1971, have served as its head for the last 25 years.  I have  lived on the same block, where the Mission was originally located, for over 38 years, where I married and where my now adult children have grown up. The bulk of my work as a lawyer, after the school struggles of the late '60's, has been working for 15 full time tenant organizers from 4 local community groups to the present day, representing tenants associations in wars against voracious and negligent landlords, leading to the creation of over 100 low income tenant cooperatively owned buildings, many of which we continue to represent to the present day!


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